On July 19, 2017, Sia Van Wyck awoke to the smell of bacon sizzling and pancakes on the stove. It was her first time visiting her paternal grandmother and step-grandfather at their century-old farmhouse in Clementsvale, two hours southwest of Halifax. Seven-year-old Sia, sun-kissed and lithe, lay in a cot with her pink teddy bear. She was 600 kilometres away from her mom, her five-year-old brother Niko, her orange tabby, the Colonel, and golden retriever, Rudy, in the town of Kennebunk, Me.
The weather was perfect. It was one of those summer days Nova Scotians yearn for all year: arid with a slight breeze. A sky so azure that it seemed immune to the cloak of fog that always loomed off the coast.
Sia’s grandmother and her husband lived in a sun-drenched white gabled farmhouse set back from the road among the rolling fields. Their neighbour across the road was Roland Potter, better known as Snooky. He was king of the countryside, suspendered with a red spider-veined nose. He had worked from the age of 15 cutting lumber in the woods. Now he was retired but raised beef cattle and cut hay. He hired local men to work on the farm and had the expensive machines people needed to get by in these parts: a half-tonne truck, a backhoe, a tractor, a hay cutter.
That morning after breakfast, Sia and her dad, Erik Van Wyck, visited the grandparents’ nearby farm share. Sia, an ardent animal lover who tried to pet bees and built habitats for slugs in her wooded backyard in Kennebunk, bounced up and down when she spotted the long-horned cows in the field. Fearless, she bounded into the pasture, inching close to the cows when she thought no one was looking.
At the chicken coop, besotted, she climbed inside. “That’s it, ladies. Cluck with me!” she sang, flapping her arms and dancing as the chickens ran for cover.
In the late afternoon she and her father headed to a nearby lake. As the afternoon light turned golden, Mr. Van Wyck kept glancing at the time on his phone. His mother, Morgan Van Wyck, who was cooking dinner for the family, had given him clear instructions: “Can you please be back just before seven?”
Around this time, just across the road, Mr. Potter sat outside his dark green bungalow having a drink with his wife, Vivian Potter. He had mowed a lower hayfield that afternoon and thought he was done for the day. But on a whim, he rose from the chair. “Wait 10 minutes and then put them hot dogs on,” he told Mrs. Potter. “It’ll only take me a jiffy to mow that piece.”
The piece was a small hayfield across the road, next to Sia’s grandparents. Mr. Potter climbed into the cab of his red CX90 tractor and drove down his dirt driveway to Clementsvale Road, dipping over the edge of the highway past thickets of wild roses, to a field smaller than a soccer pitch. The field was thick with a three-foot tangle of Timothy grass, purple thistle and clover. He lowered the 600-kilogram hay cutter with six steel cutting blades.
He had made four turns of the field, Mr. Potter later told a private investigator, as Sia and her dad rolled up the long gravel driveway to Sia’s grandmother’s house.
“Can I take Biscuit for a walk?” Sia asked.
“Yup,” her grandmother agreed. Biscuit, a yellow rescue dog, never strayed far from the house. “Supper is in a few minutes,” she told her granddaughter.
Mr. Potter was on his sixth turn of the field when he spotted a girl running behind the tractor, he later told the police.
Douglas Reach, Sia’s step-grandfather, was watering the fruit trees in the yard when he saw Biscuit walking up the driveway alone. Mrs. Van Wyck noticed the dog, too, and stepped outside to scan the property. There was no sign of her granddaughter.
The roar of Mr. Potter’s tractor drew Mrs. Van Wyck’s eyes to the hayfield adjacent to the farmhouse. Sia must be on the hammock or at the fruit trees with her husband, she thought, and went back inside to attend to dinner.
As Mr. Potter made his eighth round of the field, he spotted a thatch of brown hair. It was the little girl lying up ahead with her tiny right leg severed, blood pooling in the shorn grass.
“Why was she there? Why was she there? Why was she there?” Mr. Potter screamed, jumping down from the tractor. Mrs. Van Wyck heard his shrieks from the kitchen. She bolted from the house and, seeing the farmer jumping up and down in the field, ran toward him. Mr. Potter told her to get her husband and call 911.
“Why was she crouching there, why was she lying there?” Mr. Potter continued to scream, standing in the field, distraught, as others rushed to Sia’s aid.
He climbed back into the cab of his tractor and drove home.
“Snap the burner off. I don’t want no supper,” he said to his wife. “I’m not eating,” he continued as he poured himself a glass of whisky. “I just killed a kid.”
Sia’s injuries were extensive and she’d lost a lot of blood. Her mother, Effie Eraklis, rushed from Maine as Sia was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax. She arrived midmorning the next day, running to Sia, kissing her and whispering in her ear, “Mommy’s here.” Later that day, Sia flatlined.
The police announced the death as an accident that day. Bridgetown RCMP Sergeant Terry Miller told The Canadian Press the child was alone in the field that was being mowed and it appeared that she had been hiding in the deep grass. There was no suspicious or criminal activity and it was unlikely police would lay charges. The incident, Sgt. Miller added, drives home just how dangerous farming can be. He’s right: 13 children die on farms each year in Canada, according to the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association. In the United States, a child dies on a farm every three days, according to the National Ag Safety Database.
But Sia’s mother wasn’t satisfied with that answer. Desperate with grief and bursting with questions about how her daughter was killed, she filed an access-to-information request, which produced a thin, heavily redacted police report, comprising basic details and media reports. It was like getting the middle finger in the mail, she said. Where were the transcripts of the interviews? Was there even an investigation?
To obtain a copy of the full police report, Ms. Eraklis, on the advice of a lawyer, sued the property insurers of the Potters, and her husband’s mother and stepfather. A judge ordered the RCMP to release the full report. Reading through all 94 pages and listening to audio of the police interviews, Ms. Eraklis felt gutted. The interview with Mr. Potter had lasted only six minutes. And despite the fact that he was drinking when police arrived, no Breathalyzer test was administered.
Concerned that the RCMP’s handling of the incident had been inadequate, she and Mr. Van Wyck consulted a criminal lawyer who sought expertise from Tom Martin, an independent investigator with 30 years’ experience in policing. The investigator discovered details that he says point to an “incompetent” and “neglectful” investigation. “The police commitment to deciding that this incident was an accident never once wavered through any aspect of their investigation, despite any evidence to the contrary, most of which was never sought out or pursued by police,” Mr. Martin wrote in his final report.
Some of the concerns the private investigator highlighted echo questions raised during the inquiry into the RCMP’s response to the 2020 mass shooting that started in Portapique, N.S., about the quality of rural policing.
Scholars have long pointed to shortcomings of the centralized rural policing model of the RCMP, which provides law enforcement in 169 communities across Canada. Officers can lack local knowledge as a result of revolving posts, academics say, and as a result may not have the background that’s needed to assess disputes and threats. As well, rural officers may have little experience in recognizing and responding to serious offences.
“The generalist nature of rural police work and the lower volume of crime, especially serious incidents, can mean that rural officers do not have experience in managing major incidents or in specialist offences and may not have the leadership skills required,” wrote Anna Souhami, a criminologist at the University of Edinburgh School of Law, in her report on rural policing commissioned by the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission.
All of which leaves Sia’s parents hoping the case will be reopened. “That leg that was found in the field may have been just words and a gruesome description on a page to you,” Ms. Eraklis wrote in a letter to the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service, “but to us those are the little legs kicking in the pool or running down the stairs in the morning. Those were the toes I kissed a thousand times.”
According to notes in the police report, RCMP Constable Jay Goulding arrived at the scene just after 7:30 p.m., passing the ambulance, sirens blaring, on the country road. The constable had 11 years’ service with the RCMP, but was fairly new to the area. He’d been posted at this rural detachment for just 10 months.
He found Mr. Potter sitting outside, a drink in hand, surrounded by his buddies. “I’m the one who killed that little girl,” Mr. Potter told him. “I didn’t see her.”
Mr. Potter was shaking, crying and talking fast. He was so distraught that Constable Goulding told him to put down the glass of whisky.
Mr. Potter told the officer that as he began mowing, he saw a little girl playing in and near the long grass he was mowing. “I see this little girl coming behind me, running,” he said in an interview less than an hour after the incident. “And then she turn [sic] around and run back.” Mr. Potter told the officer he saw the girl was getting too close to the area he was mowing. He said he planned to stop and tell her to leave if he saw her again, but he didn’t and so he assumed she had gone back to her grandparents’ house. Mr. Potter broke down as he described spotting Sia injured.
“It hurts,” he said, crying. “It hurts. It hurts. I’m 72 years old. I don’t want to hurt nobody.”
He grabbed onto Constable Goulding for support.
“It was an accident. What could you do?” Constable Goulding answered. “There’s nothing you could’ve done differently.”
After the interview was done, Constable Goulding called his boss, Corporal Dione Canning, to say Mr. Potter showed no signs of impairment, but was drinking to calm himself after the incident. The constable drove Mr. Potter to the scene of the incident and Mr. Potter described once more what happened. Constable Goulding took GPS co-ordinates and noted that the grass was high and that a child could hide in it or be difficult to see.
In a report written nearly two months after Sia’s death, Constable Goulding stated that all investigative avenues had been exhausted. “As tragic as the matter is, the incident was a horrible accident that had no clear fault; nor was there anything in the investigation to indicate that Roland Potter had been neglectful,” he wrote on Sept. 6, 2017. “There are no grounds to lay any type of charge against Potter nor does it serve any purpose.”
A month later, Constable Goulding added more notes to the file after a review and request for more information from supervisors Corporal Tim Hawkes and Sgt. Miller. “For obvious reasons,” Sgt. Miller wrote to Constable Goulding, “it is important that our final investigative product clearly illustrates that police fulfilled their due diligence and completed a thorough and timely investigation.”
In his report, Constable Goulding added that he was satisfied when Mr. Potter told him he had not been drinking and doesn’t drink when operating a motor vehicle. “There was nothing to support anything to the contrary,” he stated. At Sgt. Miller’s request, Constable Goulding added what RCMP believe are the contributing factors to Sia’s death: the fact that she was young and unsupervised, and in a dangerous farm environment that she wasn’t accustomed to.
After Ms. Eraklis contacted a criminal lawyer to get his opinion of the case, Constable Goulding’s notes and the rest of the RCMP report landed on the tidy mahogany desk of Mr. Martin, a former homicide detective and now a licensed private investigator. Mr. Martin has cut and rolled up to 8,000 bales of hay every year for decades on his family’s hobby farm. Right from the start, he saw red flags.
“I know what you can see when you’re cutting a field,” he said in an interview, adding that pheasants and chicks are visible if you’re being careful. He couldn’t understand how Mr. Potter failed to spot Sia before running her over.
Mr. Martin also discovered through listening to audio of RCMP interviews that Mrs. Potter had told police her husband had been drinking prior to striking Sia. Mr. Potter’s speech in his police interview was repetitive, a sign of intoxication to Mr. Martin. The fact that he left the scene and immediately started drinking was also suspicious behaviour, Mr. Martin said, and common among impaired drivers.
Mr. Martin spent nearly a year investigating Sia’s death. He spoke to 17 witnesses, including Mr. Potter, his friends, neighbours and family, and produced a 1,100-page report. His investigation concluded that the RCMP had failed to properly investigate the case in 14 different ways, including not doing a sight line test or a Breathalyzer test – a “massive oversight on the part of Const. Goulding that cannot be undone,” Mr. Martin wrote.
A court-designated expert witness in crime-scene analysis, Mr. Martin reconstructed the incident. He conducted sight line tests in a field with grass the same height, from a tractor roughly the same size as Roland’s, at the same time of day, with a child Sia’s age wearing the same hot pink swim shirt. He concluded that even if Sia had been lying down, it would have been impossible not to see her.
When one of Mr. Martin’s investigators interviewed Mr. Potter, the farmer told the investigator he had watched Sia in his rear-view mirror for approximately two minutes running behind and “chasing” after the tractor jumping and waving her arms. He believes she was trying to capture his attention because she had become separated from the dog. “Two minutes is a lot longer than the original fleeting glance in the rear-view mirror that Potter previously described [to police],” Mr. Martin wrote. And it was within this window, Mr. Martin said, that Mr. Potter had a duty to stop and ensure Sia was safe.
Mr. Martin concluded Mr. Potter should have been charged with criminal negligence causing death, or dangerous operation of a vehicle causing death.
“For this mother to have to endure the agony and heartache of losing her daughter, and then be faced with such an obviously incompetent and blatantly neglectful investigation … in my opinion is as callous and indifferent as I have ever witnessed in a police agency,” Mr. Martin wrote in his report.
While Mr. Martin also contends that Morgan Van Wyck was criminally negligent for failing to get Sia out of harm’s way after she noticed her granddaughter missing, the parents’ lawyer, James Giacomantonio, a former prosecutor, believes Mr. Potter is the only one who should be tried in court for criminal negligence causing death or manslaughter.
Mr. Giacomantonio sent a copy of the private investigation to the Bridgetown RCMP in the summer of 2020, along with multiple follow-up notes asking the authorities to consider the new evidence. Sergeant Terry Faulkner from the area’s major crime division spent six months reviewing the report along with the RCMP initial investigation, and then sent it on to the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service for a legal opinion.
In an e-mail in spring 2021, Sgt. Faulkner responded that “based on the legal opinion supplied, and after reviewing all of the available evidence, I can tell you that I am of the opinion that any attempted prosecution of any person in relation to the tragic death of Sia Van Wyck would not be successful.”
The public prosecution service, which does not have the power to lay charges in Nova Scotia, unlike in some other provinces, refused to disclose its advice to police, citing solicitor-client privilege.
One long-standing criticism of the RCMP’s contract policing model is the revolving door of officers as they are transferred or promoted – a serious problem that means officers may not have access to local knowledge, said Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor and author of Canadian Policing: Why and How It Must Change. That shortcoming has been highlighted in Dr. Souhami’s report for the Mass Casualty Commission, A Systematic Review of the Research on Rural Policing. A centralized rural policing model like the RCMP’s risks distancing officers from the communities they serve and undermining local knowledge, Dr. Souhami wrote in the report.
In the wake of Sia’s death, Sgt. Miller said Mr. Potter “wasn’t known to us.” But in fact, people had been complaining about Mr. Potter drinking and behaving erratically – and in some cases dangerously – for years, the private investigator found. Mr. Potter experienced great loss early in his life – he was raised by his sister after both his parents died early. He raised a family of his own, but life inside his own dark green bungalow could be tumultuous. One of Mr. Potter’s sons told the investigator that his father used to beat him when he’d been drinking. (Mr. Potter denies this.) His drinking often led to violent outbursts, leading to an assault conviction in 1993, and another time in the 1990s when he took a swing at an election volunteer. More recently, prior to Sia’s death, there was an incident where a young family, new to the area, said they called police after a group of local men, including Mr. Potter, showed up on their property and allegedly threatened to cut down a tree while their young daughter was swinging in it. (In an interview, Mr. Potter said he couldn’t recall the incident.) These allegations have not been proven in court.
Some of the research about the core elements of rural police work point to how Sia’s case may have been, as Mr. Martin believes, unfairly treated as an accident. The relatively low volume of serious offences in rural areas mean that officers at all levels may have little experience in recognizing and responding to serious incidents and may not have the skills required to investigate properly, Dr. Souhami notes. Also, research shows a core feature of rural police work is the under-enforcement of the law. “All officers use discretion to prioritize the ‘peacekeeping’ elements of their role, under-enforcing the law where possible, shaping their responses through the norms of the communities within which they work,” she wrote in her report, although this doesn’t apply to minority and marginalized communities, such as Black and First Nations people, who are disproportionately subject to police enforcement.
Walter DeKeseredy of West Virginia University, a criminologist who researches rural crime in Canada and the U.S., said the findings of the private investigator aren’t surprising. It’s common for accidents on agricultural land to be poorly investigated and deemed low priority due to their isolation and the limited resources of police officers, he said. If a death doesn’t look like murder, often police assume it’s an accident and don’t thoroughly investigate it, especially if no one speaks up from the community. “Many so-called accidents are actually acts of negligence and are crimes,” Dr. DeKeseredy said. “This is not an isolated incident.”
Dr. Roach points to the fact that an RCMP traffic investigator didn’t reconstruct the scene as they would have done if it had been a routine fatal traffic accident. “There are concerns not only in Nova Scotia but in many other rural and remote environments about whether the RCMP is properly resourced,” Dr. Roach said. He also questioned how well police officers understand the law of manslaughter – unintentional killing resulting from unlawful behaviour – a complicated area of law that has been a moving target in the past 20 years.
In an interview, Sgt. Miller, who was the non-commissioned officer in charge at the Bridgetown RCMP during Sia’s investigation, defended the handling of the case. He said Constable Goulding was a “competent young member,” and a “good investigator.”
As for why he didn’t conduct a Breathalyzer test, Sgt. Miller said there were no grounds to ask for one. While the law has since changed, in 2017, officers needed reasonable suspicion that the driver had been drinking in order to demand a Breathalyzer test, such as alcohol on the breath, bloodshot eyes, staggering, falling and fumbling. “Certainly, the odour of alcohol and the fact that he was drinking in front of them after the fact when they were on scene trying to gather information – those are not grounds,” Sgt. Miller said.
Sgt. Miller said he hadn’t been aware that Mr. Potter was drinking prior to hay mowing, a fact that wasn’t included in Constable Goulding’s typed police notes. Still, he demurred, having one drink doesn’t make you impaired.
Police didn’t do sight lines tests because the hay was thick and high, Sgt. Miller added. It was obvious to him after consulting a neighbour who owns a hay mower that Sia would’ve been in the driver’s peripheral vision. If she was lying flat and hiding, as Mr. Potter suggested she was, Mr. Potter wouldn’t have seen her, he said.
It would’ve been different, he said, if Mr. Potter had seen Sia behind the tractor, continued operating the tractor, and then ran over her, which is what Mr. Martin believes occurred, but his understanding of the case was that Sia had been last spotted at the edge of the field. “That was quite a distance. It was a fairly large gap,” Sgt. Miller said.
During an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Potter described the events that led up to Sia’s death. “She come back and dove in the hay,” he said. “She buried herself right in the hay.”
He didn’t see her do this, he said. But he’s certain she did. “I’m just telling you how I found her,” he said.
Since Sia’s death, Mr. Potter said his mental health has plummeted and he started drinking more. He’s faced a slew of charges, none of which resulted in a conviction. He was alleged to have threatened to bulldoze a neighbour’s home, assaulted a family member with an all-terrain vehicle, and threatened to kill himself and Constable Goulding. The last charge stemmed from a 2020 incident where Mrs. Potter had requested a wellness visit from the police. Constable Goulding arrived and later arrested Mr. Potter, who alleges in a complaint to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission that Constable Goulding roughed him up while he was in custody. (The RCMP directed questions about Constable Goulding to the commission, which would not comment.)
Last spring, Mr. Potter, in the midst of a continuing property dispute, erratically drove his backhoe while replacing boulders that his neighbours were removing, at one point dropping the backhoe bucket of the machine above a woman in her 60s, missing her head by inches, according to a video presented in court. Earlier this month, a Nova Scotia judge acquitted him of dangerous driving, three counts of assault with a weapon and a breach in relation to the incident. Citing the defence of property law, Justice Pierre Muise said Mr. Potter acted in a way that was reasonably necessary to protect his property, himself and his wife after one of the teenage boys threw a baseball-sized rock, breaking a window of the backhoe and injuring Mrs. Potter. He said it was reasonable for Mr. Potter to expect the neighbour would move out of the way when he lowered the bucket of the backhoe, noting that Mr. Potter did so “relatively slowly.” “In the circumstances, he acted in a reasonably measured way,” Justice Muise said in Digby Supreme Court on Aug. 9, 2022.
Mr. Potter laments he’s been treated unfairly since Sia’s death. The neighbours he’s in a dispute with have taunted him, he said, calling him a child killer. Sia’s father punched him in his driveway in 2018, an incident Mr. Van Wyck confirmed. Police charged Mr. Van Wyck for assault but the charge was later withdrawn.
Meanwhile, the family is still hoping Mr. Potter will face charges for killing Sia. Ms. Eraklis and Mr. Van Wyck sent multiple letters to the public prosecution service, begging the crown attorneys to reconsider their position and advise the police to reopen Sia’s case. Failing that, they want the Justice Minister to call an independent review into the RCMP and public prosecution’s handling of the death investigation. As a last resort, the lawyer Mr. Giacomantonio plans to file a private prosecution, a criminal proceeding initiated by Sia’s parents, to charge Mr. Potter for Sia’s death.
For Ms. Eraklis, one aspect of the police investigation feels particularly cruel. She read in the police report that when Sgt. Miller and Mr. Potter viewed the bloodstained spot in the field the day after Sia was struck, Sgt. Miller noted a chunk of human flesh left behind. As Sgt. Miller was wrapping up, Mr. Potter asked if he could finish mowing the remainder of the field. Yes, Sgt. Miller told him, unaware that Mr. Potter had been drinking since the morning – which he had later conceded to the private investigator and a Globe and Mail reporter.
Mr. Potter got back on his tractor after the RCMP cruiser pulled away from his house. He rumbled back across the Clementsvale Road. Past the alders and oak trees. And he drove his tractor back into the field, where the wildflowers bloomed and shone their faces at the sun.
This story received support from the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity
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